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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

25 Essential Steps to Setting Up Your New PC Like a Boss

Did you find a new PC under your tree this Christmas, or at least the hardware to build a new one? Either way, now you’ve got a whole lot of work to do—or rather, a fun holiday project! But make no mistake, you are going to be busy: getting the machine up and running, configuring the settings to your liking, playing Starcra . . . doing performance tests. It’s all going to take a while, and you don’t want to miss a single important step. But don’t worry, we’re here to help.

Read on to find our list of 25 essential tasks for every new PC. The sooner that new hardware is set up, after all, the sooner you can try out all those other presents you forgot about.

1. Back Up your Old PC

Take a deep breath. New tech can be exciting, but you don’t want to shove your old machine out of the way until you’ve mined the hard drive for its vast data riches. Check out our handy guide if you need help.

Keep in mind that you don't need to perform a complete image backup of your old PC to preserve all your savegames and other files. In fact, you don't want to do that--you should only keep the personal files that can't be recovered with app reinstalls and a fresh Windows install.

2. Run Hardware Diagnostics

We know you’re eager to play with your new PC, but before you invest a lot of time into it you should make sure everything is working properly. If there is a hardware defect, it’s better to find out now while your tech is still under warranty. OEM machines usually ship with hardware analytics, and you can find free memory and hard drive testing software here.

3. Configure the BIOS

It’s time to learn your way around your new components at the most fundamental level. Hit F2 (that’s usually the shortcut, check your motherboard or computer manual to be sure) during boot to open up the Basic Input and Output System. The settings you’ll see there are important, so don’t go making changes at random. But if you’re confident you know what you’re doing, customize the BIOS to your liking. Make sure to set the proper date and time, as well as remove boot-up splash images! We also recommend disabling fast-boot OSes like Splashtop/Express Gate to save a few seconds on your boot.

4. Start Clean with Windows
If you’ve got a home built computer, you’re ready to install Windows. If you went the OEM route, you don’t have to do a fresh install, but you’ll at least want to remove any crapware included on the system—Revo Uninstaller is a respected tool for that job. If you’re comfortable with a full format and OS install, you can’t beat a nice, freshly built environment. There are plenty of Windows 7 flavors for you to choose from, so do your research, and remember that you’ll need to use a 64-bit OS if your new system is well stocked with memory.

5. Change Control Panel’s View

For most users, the category view of Control Panel is nice and welcoming. But to an advanced user, it’s pure annoyance. Click Start-Control Panel, then look for the “view by” option in the top-right corner of the window. The Large Icons and Small Icons settings will reveal the full suite of options, so you no longer have to hunt for what you want through labyrinthine categories.

6. Adjust UAC So It Won’t Annoy You
While you’re in Control Panel, go ahead and turn down User Account Control, at least for the time being. You’re going to be installing software and making lots of changes, and those constant “Are you really, really, for reals sure?” messages would just stress you out. Click the User Accounts icon and then hit “Change User Account Control settings” to find the UAC toggle. Stop short of sliding it to the very bottom, however, a little protection is still a good idea.

7. Configure the Power Settings
This is your home PC, not a laptop running off of a battery, so you probably don’t need it going into some deep catatonic state every time you get up for two minutes—although a little power management can help your utility bills and the earth. In Control Panel, click Power Options, and from there you can adjust exactly what your machine does to conserve energy.

8. Install Google Chrome

We’ll save most of the other software updates for later, but let’s add Chrome now. Setting up a PC requires using the web, and for that you’re going to want a simple (read: uncluttered), fast browser at hand.

9. Install Drivers
Windows 7’s install is pretty good about adding enough drivers to get you going, but you should still add in the most up-to-date versions available. Your graphics card is top priority here, since GPUs get frequent driver updates that can drastically improve performance. Check Nvidia or ATI’s websites to get the newest, best files for your display hardware.

10. Update Windows

We know it’s a hassle to download and install all those Windows Updates, but it’s important, so get it out of the way. And if you’re going to be using Microsoft Office, add that first so Microsoft’s system can patch it as well. When you’re ready, go to Start-Control Panel-Windows Update. It will take a while to install everything, and could require multiple reboots.

11. Install Your Favorite Applications
In addition to any software you personally own, there are probably a number of free programs you use on a regular basis. The fastest, easiest way to get those on your new system is a Ninite installer pack. Hit up the Ninite website, choose the programs you want, and click “Get Installer.” Now you’ve got a single .exe that will do it all, plus automatically reject any toolbars or other extra garbage. Remember to include Silverlight if you use Netflix Instant, and Dropbox or Evernote if you keep a lot of data in their cloud storage.

12. Migrate Your Bookmarks into Chrome
While you’re waiting for the installer to finish, you can bring your old bookmarks into the Chrome browser you added earlier. Click the Wrench icon and choose Bookmark Manager. Once the manager screen is up, open the Organize menu and choose Import Bookmarks, and point it to your backup file. Updates are still going, huh? Then try out some of the options in our Chrome starter guide.

13. Install Media Codecs

You’ll be using your PC for lots of media playback, and that requires codecs. If you included the K-Lite pack in your Ninite installer, you’ve probably got your bases covered. But if you’d like a solution on the lighter side, consider grabbing a copy of “ffdshow tryouts,” an all in one codec for Windows. And if the fast and simple route is for you, install Media Player Classic to round out your A/V setup.

14. Migrate Steam Backups and Save Files
If Steam was one of the items on your Ninite checklist, you need to feed it the games and save files from your old machine—downloading all that data would take too long, and eat up bandwidth you want to use. Open the program, click “Steam” on the top menu, and choose “Backup and Restore Games.” Once all your favorites are back, it’s time to return your saved games to their rightful places. Unfortunately, this process isn’t nearly as straightforward, since different games stash their saves in lots of different folders. So you’ll have to copy the files on a case-by-case basis, or use the free GameSave Manager program.

15. Connect and Check Your Peripherals

Your computer is where a lot of your other tech comes together, so it’s a good idea to make sure everyone is playing nice together. Find your mp3 players, your cameras, your USB keys and external drives, and plug them in one at a time to see if they work correctly on your new hardware and OS.

16. Configure Autoplay
Now that all of your applications have been added, you can decide who gets to do what and when. Open Control Panel again and click the AutoPlay icon. Here you can configure exactly which programs, if any, get called up automatically. And since you just tried out your devices, you should see a few of them at the bottom of the list. Set it all up the way you want, and make sure to click “Save” at the bottom when you’re done.

17. Turn Off Windows Annoyances

Though Windows 7 can’t touch Vista in the frustration category, it retains a number of hassles that you’re better off without. Check out our guide and get rid of those annoying Windows “features.”

18. Change the Windows Explorer Default Location
Windows 7 includes a handy Windows Explorer shortcut on the Task Bar, but insists on have it navigate to your Library folder. When you want to explore all your files, not just the ones stored in that specific location, you’ll find yourself constantly navigating back out. Fortunately, with a few simple steps you can get Window Explorer auto-opening to the more useful My Computer.

19. Benchmark Your Machine

Now that your new system is up and running, it’s time to check out the power of this fully armed and operational workstation. Download some benchmarking programs like FRAPS and Furmark see what your new toy is capable of.

20. Download and Install Antivirus
You’ve done a lot to this system, so don’t leave it unprotected. If you have your own security software, go ahead an add it. Otherwise you’ll want to check out a downloadable option, like Microsoft Security Essentials or AVG.

21. Use MSConfig to Speed Up Your Boot

After installing all this software, it’s a good idea to make sure you don’t have a lot of little background processes dragging down your boot time. Use our MSConfig guide to see what your system is quietly doing, and kill the items you don’t need.

22. Set Up a Backup System
Your favorite cloud backup solution is fine for what it does, but real data loss peace of mind means having something local to work with. There are plenty of options to choose from—Windows Home Server, some Network Attached Storage, or even a simple external USB drive. The important thing is not which one you go with, but that you get one of them in place.

23. Configure Windows Restore Options
With your backup solution in place, you can now decide how you want to employ it. Open up the Action Center icon in Control Panel, and click the “Set up backup” button. The configuration wizard that follows will let you choose the where, when, and what of your regular backups. Once that’s done, you should also take a look at the Restore Point settings. Back in the Control Panel, go into System and then click the “Advanced system settings” item on the left. Now go to the System Restore tab, and click the Configure button. Here you can decide how much you want Windows System Protection to do, and how much of your new hard drive it gets to use.

24. Image Your System

The only thing better than knowing you’re almost done setting up a computer is knowing that you’ll never have to do it again—so long as you make a complete backup image. Grab a free trial of Acronis True Image and ensure that all this hard work won’t go to waste if your hard drive melts down.

25. Activate Windows
Did you think we forgot about activating Windows? We didn’t, we were just saving it for last. If you’d done this step first, then discovered a hardware problem, you’d have to deal with the hassle of reactivating. By now, though, you’ve had a little time to make sure your tech is in good working order, so it’s time to make your Windows install official. Open the System properties in Control Panel, and look at the bottom of the window. Make sure the product key listed there is correct, and select Activate Windows Now.

Your new PC is all set up. It’s resources are secured. It’s hardware might has been proven. If given one more entry on this guide, we would write “26. Go brag about your new stuff.” Let us know what kind of rig you got this holiday, and what you’ll be using it for now that you’ve finished the essential tasks.

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